This article was first broadcast in Episode Ninety Two on 9th October 2019.
Ryu: Oh, hey! You’re awake!
Ostron: It’s midafternoon, what were you expecting? And the Gnomish Workshop isn’t the safest place to take a nap anyway.
Lennon: Yeah, but…I figured since this has to do with rules mechanics…so you really didn’t need to fire up ROSTRO for this one?
Ostron: Well there really isn’t a lot of math or stuff from other rulesets. I mean if you think we’ll need it I can just –
Ryu & Lennon: No! / Don’t need it / Don’t bother / we’re fine
Ostron: Okay, well, I think I’ve got enough to go on here.
Many people have pointed out, for a variety of reasons, that D&D 5th edition is a “rules light” system. While the 5th edition rules cover most situations that arise at the table, some feel the way situations are addressed can seem simplistic at times. For example, if a fighter is standing next to a prone enemy suffering from the effects of both a faerie fire and a hold person spell, they still only get basic advantage on their melee attack, because multiple sources of advantage don’t stack.
In response to that, many people do what is called “houseruling” situations. House rules are something that’s been present in gaming for far longer than D&D has been around. One of the most common areas where house rules come into play is actually the game Monopoly. Ask most people how their friends or family handled the “free parking” space and you’re likely to get a wide variety of answers about what the space was used for during that portion of the game before the table was flipped and friendships and family trees had to be renegotiated.
House rules are actually baked into D&D, particularly in 5th edition (although officially they’re referred to as “optional rules). As we’ve mentioned multiple times before, the DM’s Guide, as well as parts of Xanathar’s Guide, have suggestions for how to modify games to add different mechanics from what’s laid out in the basic rules. Reintroducing flanking to combat, using power points rather than spell slots, and forcing players to heal with hit dice rather than rests are just a few of the examples, so people looking for more options in their games may want to start there. One house rule submitted by a patron actually built on the Players’ Handbook’s method for doing group skill checks. Rather than counting how many characters succeed or fail, the activity acquires a “group DC” (usually the regular DC multiplied by the number of characters) and each character’s skill check or save contributes to the total. That allows characters who really excel to make up for characters who fall well short of the goal.
However, there are other times when the various guides just don’t have what groups are looking for, and in those cases people tend to make things up themselves. In D&D, house rules are generally designed to handle one of three areas: mechanical rules changes, realism, or roleplay.
We’ll start with mechanical rules changes. Usually these house rules are changes made because players and/or the DM don’t like the way certain aspects of the game play out. For example, one of our patrons mentioned at his table that the use of a healing potion is a bonus action, rather than a full action, because the group felt making it a full action limited healing too much. A different group eliminated the restriction on characters only having 1 inspiration die, because they felt it meant players were only trying to be extra creative until they got inspiration. Incidentally, that particular house rule is also something a number of groups do by accident.
A related house rule we brought up before is modifying critical hits so the part of the damage ordinarily rolled is maxed out automatically, and only the bonus damage is rolled, so critical hits are guaranteed to do more damage than a regular hit. The common factor with all of these house rules is the primary reason for the changes was simply issues with how the game played as a game.
Other house rules deal with realism. Usually these house rules come up when players or DMs encounter a mechanic that breaks their immersion. Take the example we started out with, where there’s a prone, glowing, paralyzed enemy the fighter is about to attack. Since realistically it would be far easier to hit that creature than if they were only prone, some groups allow for more dice in advantage, so for every reason the character has advantage, they get to roll another d20 and take the highest out of however many are rolled.
Ostron: Oh the math implications of that are kind of interesting. Why do I feel faint all of a sudden?
Ryu: Lennon! Next example!
Lennon: On it!
Wizards of the Coast themselves asked for homebrew rules specifically related to Descent into Avernus and many of those suggestions fell into this realism category. For example, one was a suggestion that if a character utters the phrase “I’d sell my soul for whatever”, it would immediately alert a devil somewhere in the nine hells, like an infernal text alert. Similarly, a different person said they ruled characters could use soul coins to purchase Lemure demons as followers and possibly even get them leveled up by interacting with the denizens of the nine hells. Both of those ideas are based on the lore of the nine hells, and the DM and the groups thought it would add to how characters might actually interact with the setting. One group took it even further and created a new ability score, Valor, that increased or decreased based on good or bad deeds, and then the DM would have scenarios where characters would need to save using that ability. Another setting specific house rule is a DM of a Saltmarsh campaign who waived the restriction on low-level druids shapeshifting into animals with a swim speed.
The final cateogry of house rules are roleplay ones. These often resemble the realism or mechanics house rules, but are typically limited to a single character and relate to the character’s backstory or roleplay. For example, a player playing a wild magic sorcerer may decide the magic in their character is particularly unstable, so they roll for a wild magic surge for cantrips as well as actual spell casting. Another patron mentioned playing a character who had animals as a major part of his backstory. Despite not playing a ranger or a spellcaster who would acquire a familiar, the DM allowed the character to have an animal-companion style follower with increasing statistics and abilities.
In general, house rules can be very simple and low impact, such as the Avernus tweak where devils are made aware of a character idly offering their soul, to especially elaborate house rules that are almost full on feature expansions to the core rules, like the modifications to critical hits or the animal companion. Simple, easy-to-follow rules can feel like a part of the core game after a short time, and players can also suggest new rules based on the situations they encounter – so what would happen if your druid shape-shifted into a rhino on the battlements of a castle, then charged all the guardsmen?
If something is going to be a house rule, that should be established up front and obviously, because both the players and the DM will need to be open to tweaking it. This is especially true if it’s a more complicated mechanic. For example, say you want to introduce a system where players can delay their turn to combine spells, like a warlock casting eldritch blast and a wizard casting firebolt at the same time producing a new, unique effect. Everyone has to acknowledge that there’s a lot open to interpretation there, and a lot of things will have to be made up and corrected on the fly, particularly because the mechanics of 5e have some built in limits, usually from bounded accuracy, and if those limits are broken then abilities can get unbalanced in a hurry.
Also, making it clear what things are house rules is essential if people are involved with more than one game; different tables may have different house rules in effect, and Adventurer’s League doesn’t do house rules at all, so it’s helpful for everyone to keep in mind how their games will change.
Ostron: Speaking of change, pay up.
Ryu: (sigh) Fine, here you go.
Lennon: What’s that about?
Ostron: I bet Ryu that when I asked you “what are the house rules”, you wouldn’t come by with a copy of the policies for the HR Guild house.
Lennon: Oh come on, what makes you think I would do something like that?
Ryu: Wait, what’s that paper in your —
Lennon: (eats paper)
Ryu: — did you just eat that?
Lennon: I have no idea what you’re talking about
Ryu: Riiiiight… well let’s head over to the Scrying pool; I’m sure the listeners have been sending things in and I’m still nervous talking about game mechanics in here.